United States, Russia lead world junior hockey field

Updated: December 21, 2005, 12:08 PM ET
Associated Press

TORONTO -- The United States and Russia are considered the teams to beat at the world junior hockey championship starting Monday in Vancouver, Kamloops and Kelowna, British Columbia.

The Czech Republic is also touted, while defending champion Canada is considered a dark horse with its youth and inexperience at the world under-20 level.

"I don't think it's a secret we're not going into this tournament, despite playing at home, as the favorite," said Blair Mackasey, Hockey Canada's director of player personnel.

The U.S., which won its first world junior title two years ago in Helsinki, is loaded with talent in every position.

Russia is bringing back almost half of the team that lost to Canada in the final of the 2005 tournament in Grand Forks, N.D., including Russian Super League star Evgeni Malkin.

The Czechs boast Marek Schwarz, named top goaltender at the 2005 tournament.

Canada and the U.S. are in Group A along with Finland, Switzerland and Norway. All round-robin games will be played at Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum, with a capacity of 16,150.

Russia, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Slovakia and Latvia make up Group B. Their preliminary games will be in Kelowna and Kamloops, British Columbia., where the arenas hold just over 6,000 people.

The top three in each pool advance to the playoff round with the top team in each pool earning a bye through the quarterfinal to the semifinal. The final, semifinals and quarterfinals will all be played at GM Place, the Vancouver Canucks' home rink which has a capacity of 18,630.

The U.S. has hit its international hockey stride in the developmental ranks recently with two world under-18 hockey titles (2005, 2002) and a first world junior title in 2004.

USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, which includes full-time under-18 and under-17 teams, began in 1996 and has helped pave the road for that success. Half the players on the current U.S. team are products of the program.

The 2005 NHL draft was a banner one for Americans, and six first-round picks are playing on the current U.S. junior team.

Russia has historically been Canada's nemesis in hockey, but the U.S. has become a formidable rival.

"The balance of power in international hockey has shifted to North America and I would expect the U.S. and Canada to be running at each other for the next 10 years," Mackasey said.

Russia is a perennial contender. Malkin was not on the preliminary roster for the junior team, but he and Russian coach Sergei Mikhalev have been quoted in Russian media saying that will he will play in Vancouver.

The 19-year-old leads the Russian Super League in goals and points and will likely play for his country at the Olympic Games.

A Canadian city is hosting the world junior hockey championship for a seventh time and the tournament will return to this country with more frequency. Hockey Canada is already taking bids for 2009, and has arranged with the International Ice Hockey Federation to host it again in 2012.

Canada has set an attendance record in each Canadian city with Halifax, the most recent host in 2003, establishing the current high of 242,173.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press